Catching a fish has become a real art form these days and, while media focus centres around artificial baits, traditional organic baits are still the easiest and most effective way to catch a feed.
The vast majority of fish species live on or very close to the seabed, particularly in coastal waters. Often referred to as demersal species, they congregate along the seafloor - obviously the best way to catch them is to get your baits down into the strike zone. However, the biggest question is what type of rig do you employ to maximise your chances?
The problem is that there are so many variations in the seabed, from reefs to rubble or snags to weedbeds in the river. Couple this with the hundreds of different species to target and it can make it hard to select the right rig for the job. So, instead of profiling each one, I have picked my top five bait rigs, profiling when, where and how to use them.
The paternoster is undoubtedly the most popular bottom-fishing rig and has caught just about everything that swims. With the sinker at the bottom and one or two hooks it is perfectly suited to drifting, surf fishing or even estuary fishing. The position of the sinker not only minimises the chances of snagging but, more importantly, keeps the baits up out of the weed where they are clearly visible in the strike zone.
By incorporating a couple of tricks you can greatly increase your chances with the good old paternoster rig.
Firstly, it pays to use the lightest leader possible to help make baits appear more natural. As a rough guide, in estuaries you rarely need more than 20kg, while in coastal waters 40kg will cover most fish. The exceptions are species like coral trout up north (that can smash anglers on reefs), or deepwater bottom-bouncing for gemfish, where rigs will need to be beefed up.
Another tip is to use three-way swivels as opposed to just tying loop knots for the hooks. This will minimise the chances of the baits spinning and make everything look more natural.
As a general rule it is better to run two hooks to double your chances. If you want to spread your options even further, use hooks in various sizes and prepare them with different types of bait.
In southern waters anglers will often run the smaller hook on the bottom dropper. Shellfish or a prawn on the bottom hook with a pilchard or fish strip on the top hook will mean you can hook just about anything from whiting to snapper. Using two baits also means that if you miss a fish and lose a bait you still have a back-up.
While the paternoster rig can be used in a wide range of situations, it is perfectly suited to bottom-bouncing. This technique basically entails drifting over productive grounds with enough weight to keep the rig on the bottom where most of the fish will be. It is very simple and is one of the best ways to catch everything from morwong and leatherjackets in the southern waters, to coral trout, spangled emperor and trevally up in the tropics. In other words, it is an all-round rig that can produce just about anything and can be used by anyone.
At the other end of the spectrum is the floater rig. Instead of fishing baits on the bottom, the trick is to float baits down the cube trail.
The rig is very simple and is usually nothing more than a 4/0 to 7/0 suicide or circle hook tied directly to the end of a 6kg to 10kg monofilament mainline. A light sinker is included in the rig and free runs all the way to the hook. If there is a bit of current pushing you may have to bump up the size of the sinker.
The basic technique is to chop up fish cubes to form a trail, which steadily sinks down to reach the bottom some distance back behind the boat. Fish attracted by the steady stream of burley will often follow the trail back up towards the source.
This technique is best employed in shallower water - say, inside 50 metres - although if there is no current then it can be used in surprisingly deep water.
It really is important to take the time to prepare the bait so it appears natural and the hook isn't too obvious. A bait that looks like the rest of the cubes drifting down will get far more attention. Take the time to rig the bait correctly and you will enjoy more action, especially on shy species like snapper.
In places such as Port Phillip Bay, where there is little current and the water is shallow, one rig that works a treat is the running sinker.
A 15kg leader about 50cm in length is joined to the main line via a small barrel swivel and the whole rig is weighed down with a small bean sinker that runs freely along the mainline. At the business end, it used to utilise a pair of 5/0 chemically-sharpened octopus hooks, but today most anglers opt for circle hooks.
In areas where the current is stronger, the rig is modified slightly. A longer trace is employed to stop the bait spinning and, instead of having the sinker free running down the line, it is attached to a loop of line that is tied to a swivel which runs along the mainline. An Ezi Rig, where you can attach the sinker with a snap swivel, is another option.
The key to both these rigs is that, with the sinker free running, a snapper, gummy shark or big jewfish can pick up the bait and swim off without feeling the weight of the lead. Some schooling predators like snapper will grab a bait and then swim away from the rest of the school before eating it, in much the same way as a seagull will try to fly away from its rivals to eat food scraps on the beach. For this reason, the fish is allowed to take some line before striking - if it feels any pressure during those initial moments it may drop the bait.
Single hook running sinker
A rig that is commonly employed up north, especially in heavy reef country, is a single hook with a free-running ball sinker that runs all the way to the hook.
With only one knot, this is a very basic rig that is perfect for catching the likes of coral trout and emperor up on the reef. It's worth noting that, with no leader, the whole rig needs to be heavyweight, with the main line often being as much as 60kg, so it's not really about finesse - it really relies more on brute force to haul the fish out of the reef before you get snagged up. Interestingly, it is also commonly employed by the guys fishing for Murray cod in among dead timber.
The big advantage this rig has is it's relatively easy to de-snag. The idea is that when the hook snags on the coral or a stump, you can bounce it off by shaking the line. This action causes the sinker to run up and down the main line and as it comes down, it hits the hook, which often bounces free, saving the hassle of re-rigging.
Simple and single
This is the simplest of all rigs and consists of nothing more than a hook tied directly to the end of the line. As simple as it sounds, it is absolutely deadly because it is the most natural, with nothing, such as sinkers, to impede its appearance or movement.
The only problem with this set-up is that it suffers from line twist so it can pay to add a small swivel in some situations.
One trick I can offer is to always use the smallest or lowest-profile swivel possible, which will help retain a natural appearance. And don't skimp on swivels. Good ones, like Halcos, are worth the investment as they are super-strong, whereas cheaper, lighter ones are likely to break.
When it comes to knots, the best option is a uni-knot, which is small and less obvious. This rig can work just about anywhere, from floating a prawn down into the snags for a big bream to offshore cubing for giant yellowfin.
The recent trend towards fluorocarbon leaders is certainly worth the cost. But it's also best to spend the money on good fluoro, like Icon, so that it is completely invisible. The problem with some of the cheaper lines is that they are not true fluoro and, as a result, are easier for the fish to see.
Irrespective of which rig you employ you need to take the time to rig the bait up correctly so it appears natural. Just threading a piece of squid or slab of tuna on without thinking twice is simply not good enough in most cases. The problem is that the bait slides down to the back of the hook. With the hook sitting in front of the bait when you strike you will usually miss the hook-up and only succeed in pulling the hook away from the fish.
Spending a bit of extra time to rig the bait correctly will pay dividends, but different baits require different techniques.
A pilchard tail should be impaled toward the bottom, but held in place with two half hitches around the tail. It is a similar case with a prawn, where the bait can be fed onto the hook, exposing the tip down towards the head of the prawn. To secure it in place, again, the line is half-hitched around the tail.
When using a fillet of fish the key is to cut it into strips that fit the hook. Don't cut them into triangles or squares; instead long, straight strips that taper in at the tip. Some baits, like yakkas, have a natural taper and can be half-hitched perfectly. Other softer baits, like tuna, can be hard to half-hitch so the best option is to feed the hook completely through the flesh, then simply pin the hook point back through the fillet so the eye of the hook lies directly where the line comes through the fillet.
If you have any doubts about how your bait is rigged, you can easily test it by slipping it into the water next to the boat and see how it sits.
Fresh is best
While rigging is one element, you also need to use the right bait for the job - and that means fresh, super fresh.
The basic rule is simple: the fresher the better. It might surprise you, but many species of fish are incredibly fussy and will ignore all but the best-quality bait. Week-old refrozen bait simply won't cut it these days if you want to catch some quality table fish, so make the effort to drop in at the local fish market and pick up some fresh bait. In fact, if you are really serious, go one step further and collect your own bait before heading out.
Best baits are those that are tough and preferably have a high oil content to help attract fish. Squid, fresh salted tuna slabs, yakkas, mullet and slimy mackerel are all good baits that are tough enough to withstand water pressure and pickers as they are dragged along the bottom.
Another option often employed for offshore fishing is live bait. Baits like yakkas or slimy mackerel are widely available on inshore reefs and make a great addition to the bait supply. Fishing with live baits suddenly opens up the possibility of a whole new range of deepwater predators and, better still, if your livies die, you at least still have fresh dead baits.
Spice it up
When small fish are being pesky and decimating baits, one trick is to replace one of the baits with a soft plastic. Artificials, such as stick baits or minnow imitations, are surprisingly effective and can work a treat on a surprising number of species. Some anglers even set one rod up with just soft plastic and leave it in the rod holder. The boat's gentle action is enough to give the soft plastic enough life to tempt a fish. Sometimes they can even out-fish real bait.